FASHION: BLACK TO THE FUTURE - Arts and Entertainment - The Independent

FASHION: BLACK TO THE FUTURE

In the Fifties, stylish Harlem women, excluded by the white rag trade, designed and modelled their own clothes - and helped launch a distinguished photographic career.

The first black model to make it on to the cover of Vogue was Detroit-born Donyale Luna, photographed by David Bailey. That was 30 years ago, and the fashion trade's long resistance to black models has been forgotten. But Eve Arnold documented how the women of Harlem took fashion into their own hands in the Fifties in some of her earliest photographs, which can soon be seen in London.

Like so many others, she was introduced to photography by chance: "A beau gave me my first camera and taught me to use it - a $40 Rolleicord." The only class she ever took was a six-week course in New York in 1950, with Alexey Brodovitch, mentor of Richard Avedon and many others. In his "Design Laboratory", 60 ambitious photo-wannabes jostled and savagely criticised one another's work, making no exception for Eve's first amateur efforts: "It was infuriating and chilling, but sadly accurate." The saturnine Brodovitch needled: "Surprise me!"

Eve was stung into trying harder, even though her first class assignment was to photograph fashion - a subject in which she had no interest. Appalled at the prospect of the usual stilted studio shots, she sought an alternative approach to the project. Dora, her son's nursemaid, told Eve about the regular fashion shows that were happening in Harlem. The civil rights movement had not yet gathered full momentum, but in 1950 the black community was growing impatient with the slow progress towards integration. In Harlem, style-conscious black women who felt that the white rag trade did not cater for them had begun to design and make their own clothes. Shows were held almost daily, in bars, theatres, nightclubs and church halls. Eve telephoned Edward Brandford, who ran two black model agencies, the Sepia and the Black & Tan, and he invited her to visit a deconsecrated Abyssinian church to see his star performer, Charlotte Stribling, aka "Fabulous", stride the catwalk.

Eve moved backstage, where she hoped the models would be less aware of her camera. Again, the quality of the resulting photographs partly depended on an accident - her flash-gun failed to fire and she was forced to open up the lens and work with the available light. (This minimum obtrusion technique, using a hand-held camera, would become one of her hallmarks.) Brodovitch said they showed a fresh and original approach, and told Eve to forget classes: "Go back to Harlem and do a comprehensive study." For more than a year she spent most weekends in Harlem photographing models and dressmakers, both in their homes and backstage. Once the story was completed, however, she discovered that no American magazine would publish the pictures. Her husband, who had lived in Britain, sent them to Picture Post, which ran eight pages plus the cover.

With just the one story to show, Eve made the rounds of the New York magazines, to little effect. Eventually she persuaded the publicist at the Metropolitan Opera to let her photograph an opening night. Armed with two stories, she showed her work to Maria Eisner, who ran the newly opened New York office of the photographers' co-operative Magnum. Largely on the strength of her Harlem photographs, she was invited to become a stringer: she and Inge Morath were Magnum's first women members. Her career as a photo-journalist took off and she chronicled almost every aspect of Fifties America, from unsavoury politicians (Rockwell, McCarthy) to film-stars (Monroe, Dietrich). Since settling in London in 1962 she has continued to photograph on assignment throughout the world.

To tie in with her Barbican Art Gallery retrospective a BBC TV crew recently filmed Eve Arnold in Harlem, site of the photographs that launched her career. Sadly, Charlotte Stribling could not be found. But the Abyssinian church still stood on 155th Street, and there Iman Bowie discussed the problems of being a black model.

Back in 1950, black women were still straightening their hair or wearing wigs, and fortunes were made out of selling skin-lightening cosmetics. But the women of Harlem were starting to react against Seventh Avenue "prettiness" and establish their own styles. An episode largely absent from fashion and social history is movingly documented in Eve Arnold's photographs, here and overleaf.

An exhibition of Arnold's work will run at London's Barbican, 9 May to 14 August. Her new book, `'Eve Arnold: In Retrospect", is published on 6 May (Sinclair-Stevenson, pounds 30)

Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Rob James-Collier, who plays under-butler Thomas Barrow, admitted to suffering sleepless nights over the Series 5 script

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence star in new film 'Serena'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Some might argue that a fleeting moment in the actor’s scintillating, silver-tongued company is worth every penny.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth stars as master magician Stanley Crawford in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

film
Arts and Entertainment
U2 have released Songs of Innocence in partnership with Apple

musicBand have offered new record for free on iTunes
Arts and Entertainment
Brad Pitt stars in David Ayer's World War II drama Fury

film
Arts and Entertainment
Top hat: Pharrell Williams

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum star as undercover cops in 22 Jump Street

film
Arts and Entertainment
David Bowie is back with fresh music after last year's hit album The Next Day

music
Arts and Entertainment
Keith Richards is publishing 'Gus and Me: The Story of My Granddad and My First Guitar', a children's book about his introduction to music

music
Arts and Entertainment
Calvin Harris has generated £4m in royalties from the music platform

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman stars as the Time Lord's companion Clara in Doctor Who

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Time and time again: the popular daytime quiz has been a fixture on Channel 4 since 1982

TV
Arts and Entertainment

To mark Tolstoy's 186th birthday

books
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel McAdams is reportedly competing with Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss for a major role in True Detective

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Sam Smith returned to the top spot with his album 'In The Lonely Hour'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Backshall is set to dance with Ola Jordan on Strictly Come Dancing. 'I have a friend who's a dancer and she said to me 'You want Ola because she's a fantastic dancer and she can make anyone look good' meaning 'even you'!' he said.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Sting and Paul Simon on stage together at Carnegie Hall in New York

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week